Study: More than half of breastfeeding mothers don’t have access to basic workplace accommodations

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A new study from the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota finds that fewer than half of breastfeeding mothers who return to work after giving birth reported having access to basic accommodations of time and space to express breastmilk at work. 

Specifically, the researchers found that only 40 percent of new mothers who were breastfeeding their babies had access to both adequate break time and private space, which was not a bathroom, at their workplace.

However, those mothers who did have access to workplace accommodations were more than twice as likely as those without these accommodations to exclusively breastfeed their baby for 6 months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The study findings were published today in Women’s Health Issues.

“The benefits of breastfeeding are well documented. Unfortunately, many mothers who wish to continue breastfeeding when they return to work encounter logistical challenges.,” said Katy Kozhimannil, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor in the in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. “We found that workplace accommodations really seemed to make a difference; those mothers whose employers provided time and space for expressing breastmilk at work were more likely to continue breastfeeding their babies.”

The study analyzed data from the Listening to Mothers III survey, a national survey of 2,400 women aged 18 to 45 who gave birth in U.S. hospitals in 2011 and 2012. This is the first national study of workplace accommodations for breastfeeding since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which required all employers with more than 50 workers to provide break time and private space for breastfeeding mothers. 

The study found:

  • 59 percent of breastfeeding women who returned to work postpartum had access to adequate break time
  • 45 percent of breastfeeding women who returned to work postpartum had private space (not a bathroom) to express breastmilk
  • 40 percent of breastfeeding women who returned to work had access to both adequate break time and space
  • Low-income women and single mothers were less likely to have access to either break time or private space to express breastmilk
  • Mothers who had both adequate break time and private space were 2.3 times more likely to exclusively breastfeed for at least 6 months.

“It surprised us that less than half of nursing mothers had access to appropriate workplace accommodations for breastfeeding, especially after the Affordable Care Act placed requirements on most employers to provide break time and private space” said Kozhimannil.  “Our findings suggest that compliance with this regulation may be lacking, which may have real consequences for women and families.”

The study emphasizes the need for clinicians, employers, and policymakers to work together to support breastfeeding mothers.  It also notes that efforts to fully implement and enforce the provisions of the Affordable Care Act would likely benefit low-income families and single mothers, the groups least likely to have access to workplace support for breastfeeding.

This research was supported by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD; grant number R03HD070868) and the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health Grant (grant number K12HD055887) from NICHD, the Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the National Institute on Aging, at the National Institutes of Health, administered by the University of Minnesota Deborah E. Powell Center for Women’s Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The authors cite no conflicts of interest.